Friday, August 29, 2014

#74: How Microtransactions Ruined Dead Space 3

Last week, I detailed many of my thoughts on the distressingly awful Dead Space 3. I had discussed my complaints regarding the combat, the co-op, and the story of the game. What I neglected to talk about was the microtransactions and their negative influence on the game. My thoughts on this particular subject are so intense that I feel that their inclusion in last week's post would detract from my complaints in it, making that piece far too long of a read. It is actually surprising just how deeply the mere inclusion of microtransactions fundamentally altered the game's core design.

This is because the actual microtransactions by themselves seem initially to be incredibly innocuous. Using either real world money or Ration Seals acquired through scavenging, players can purchase resources from the game to help give them an edge over the space zombies. The problem arises in that there was not much to purchase with them. Buying health and/or ammo would be far too blatant and obviously impact the game design. So something needed to be created in order to give users something to purchase. For this reason, the weapon crafting was added to the game.

Weapon crafting is exactly what it sounds like. Throughout the game, players collect weapon frames, cores, muzzles, attachments, and upgrade circuitry as they progress. When they reach a bench, they can use these collected parts to create custom weaponry or modify existing weaponry. If the player should wish to acquire more of a specific part, but do not have the time or desire to search the game world for it, they can use collected resources such as Tungsten, Superconductors, Scrap Metal, and the like to craft those parts. Now, should they lack even these basic resources, Ration Seals or real world money can be spent acquiring them. Again, this is fairly innocuous addition in and of itself. In fact, there is even some entertainment value in creating awesome weaponry to use against space zombies.

Unfortunately, it also came with some unintended side effects. The first such effect is that horror element has been eliminated from the game. Even in the early half of the game, it is entirely possible for players to create weaponry with maxed out damage ratings. The shotgun I had created that early lasted me for the entire game, up to the final boss. Nothing was scary, because nothing stood a chance against me. My partner and I died fairly infrequently outside of set-pieces, and neither one of us felt even a tinge of fear. Considering how scary the earlier games were reported to be, that is more than a little disappointing.

The other side effect is that the developers can no longer be sure of exactly what type of weapon(s) the player has in their inventory. For what I have been told, earlier Dead Space games gave players specific weaponry over the course of the game, slowly building up their arsenal. The designers can use this information to carefully control which ammo is dropped where and how often in order get the player to naturally switch up tactics based on what their current ammo count is for each weapon. In the third game of the franchise, this can no longer work. Since Visceral Games are not sure of what weapons players are using, they cannot drop ammunition for specific weapons to encourage use of them. As a result, ammo had to be universal, working for every weapon. That way, no matter what equipment is being used at a given point in the game, the risk that the player is put into an unwinnable state is significantly lessened.

And that decision, which was a side effect of our first big change, has another side effect associated with it. Since every weapon consumes the same resource when firing it, there is no way to incentivize much needed variety. Every person I know that has played Dead Space 3 made one really powerful weapon in the beginning of the game and generally stuck with it. Although there were other options like new weapons, kinesis, and stasis available to them, they all just chose to keep firing with their weapon of choice. Every fight feels the same because the same weapons are being used over and over again against enemies who use the same tactics. No variety can be added in the natural way it used to be because the tools to do so no longer exist. Furthermore, since all ammo works for all weapons, it is no longer a scarce resource. In fact, I never once ran out of it throughout my entire playthrough and my partner ran out exactly once.

To recap, it started with a simple request: Add microtransactions to the next Dead Space game. From that one event, a ripple effect occurred. The side effects from this one simple addition multiplied, affected the overall game. As a result, the combat and overall pace of the game was severely impacted. Without the necessary tools to control variety and space, the developers lost their ability to fine tune the gaming experience in the way they could in the first two Dead Space games, judging from what I have been told by franchise fans. Taking away the excellent pacing results in poorly executed combat and the inability to really provoke any form of horror.

Nothing in a game exists in a vacuum. Every single aspect, no matter how small, affects every other aspect. Despite what many would like you to believe, this is no less true with regards to microtransactions. For a game to become great, every system has to keep into each other in perfect harmony. This is what few publishers realize. It is impossible to just add “one small thing” without affecting the balance that was already there. Careful consideration is necessary. If there is anything I would have you, the reader, take away from my experiences in Dead Space 3, that would be it.

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